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NWA convention will celebrate women leaders, industry volunteers

By
John Groh

The National Watermelon Association’s annual convention has long been referred to by its members as the annual Watermelon Family Reunion, and despite a new “head of the household,” the family reunion returns with the same enthusiasm for its 109th iteration Feb. 21-24 in Scottsdale, AZ.

George Szczepanski, who took the helm of the NWA in January of 2023 following the retirement of long-time Executive Director Bob Morrissey, now has a full year under his belt leading a membership that is passionate about their namesake commodity. Szczepanski said he is looking forward to continuing to focus on some key tenets that he inherited while bringing some new ideas to the table.

George Szczepanski
George Szczepanski

“When I came in, I received a five-pillar strategic plan for the NWA from our board,” he said. “One is looking for ways to optimize regular operations of the association, while the others are specific to food safety, research, public affairs and economics.”

To optimize association operations, Szczepanski said that he is looking to reinvigorate the committees that work on issues that affect NWA members, such as food safety, grade standards, research and federal policy.

“We rely heavily on the volunteer spirit of our members to get involved with these committees in order to drive the industry forward and maximize the value that NWA is providing,” he said.

Szczepanski said the 2024 convention will celebrate NWA volunteers, who are instrumental for the association to do more with the same level of funding.

“As an association, we want to be proactive rather than reactive, and we are fortunate to have a dedicated and talented membership that is willing to get involved with the many issues that we face as an industry,” he said.

Regarding the 2024 convention, Szczepanski said he looks forward to welcoming the industry to Scottsdale, AZ, and providing a truly Southwestern experience to his members.

“We-Ko-Pa is a beautiful venue that is part of a tribal reservation, and we will have our opening dinner at an outdoor venue that gives an authentic experience, including cowboy games and in a setting that is surrounded by iconic Saguaro cactuses,” he said. “Of course, golf is always a highlight of our convention, and this course is truly magnificent.”

Szczepanski said another highlight will be honoring the memory of Ramon Murrillo III, whose family owns and operates Cactus Melon Distributors in Nogales, AZ. Ramon III was killed in an automobile accident in Tucson, AZ, in 2019. His brother, Christian, is the president of the National Watermelon Promotion Board and currently serves on the NWA’s executive committee.

“The Murrillo family has been involved with the NWA for a long time and has worked tirelessly on behalf of the watermelon industry,” said Szczepanski. “Ramon III was an avid sneaker collector, and the family has set up a foundation that provides footwear for underprivileged families in the area. So we will be recognizing that and celebrating the Murrillo family.’

Szczepanski said that the convention also will feature a slate of seminars from sponsors, including one on food safety presented by QIMA and another by AgroRenew, which will report on its process to manufacture plastics using watermelon rinds.

But the convention also will hold its first-ever Women’s Leadership breakout session, which will feature NWA executive committee member Jordan Carter of Leger & Son as the keynote speaker.

“Jordan is an amazing woman and a strong advocate for the watermelon industry — and also the first female president of the National Watermelon Promotion Board,” said Szczepanski. “We look forward to having her share her experiences, and we also want to hear from other women in the room about their own experiences and how we can continue to add value for them. We have a growing female segment, especially young women, and we want to embrace that.”

Continuing on the importance of female leadership in the watermelon industry, Szczepanski said the National Watermelon Queen program will again be a big part of the convention, with contestants from watermelon-producing states competing to be named the National Queen at the culmination of the convention.

“The National Watermelon Queen program is much more than just a pageant at the annual convention,” said Szczepanski. “The program is actually an outstanding recruiting vehicle to bring young women into the watermelon industry. In fact, several past contestants and National Queens have come on board. At this year’s convention, we want to reinforce the positivity that the program brings to our industry.”

Overall, Szczepanski said he is extremely pleased with his first year at the NWA, and he looks forward to continuing to build on the initiatives he has inherited as well as the new ideas he has brought to the table.

John Groh

John Groh

About John Groh  |  email

John Groh graduated from the University of San Diego in 1989 with a bachelors of arts degree in English. Following a brief stint as a sportswriter covering the New York Giants football team, he joined The Produce News in 1995 as an assistant editor and worked his way up the ranks, becoming publisher in 2006. He and his wife, Mary Anne, live in northern New Jersey in the suburbs of New York City.

 

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